We are a loyal tribe, us Out Island fanatics. Once we fall for those 698 Bahamian islands, cays, and rocks outside of New Providence (Nassau) and Grand Bahama (Freeport), we return again and again. We recognize our fellow addicts, and speak to each other with a common vocabulary, carefully recruiting potential travel companions to bring into the fold. The thing with the Out Islands is that they require a particular type of traveler who will get it.
There are certain – I won’t say hardships, but rather, challenges to Out Island travel. While some might say we love the Out Islands in spite of the obstacles, I would hazard to say that we love them because of them. Because the challenges are part of what make the Out Islands so beguilingly quirky, so ripe for discovery, and so deliciously secret.
One might think that after nearly 4 months living aboard Calypso in the Bahamas two years ago, that we’d had enough, that perhaps we’d been cured of our addiction. Instead, I dream of picking sand dollars off flats at low tide. I perfect my conch chowder recipe. I imagine muscling my kayak against the current through mangrove creeks. I am transported by the framed photos in my office (which include a swimming pig and a magenta sunset). Two years is a long time to have been away from the Out Islands, so I finally pulled together a return visit to one of my Happy Places: Fernandez Bay Village on Cat Island in June. And we brought along Skip and Harriet, whom we introduced to the Abacos back in 2005 (Abacos 2005), who became smitten with the Out Islands and made up for lost time by sailing to the Bahamas for 3 seasons (Moondance’s Blog).
Out Island challenges typically start before you get there, because getting there from anywhere but Florida can take a good 12 hours of travel time. It’s not that the distance is that great; it’s just that the bridging of that distance takes some creativity, patience, flexibility and – most importantly – a sense of humor. Because things tend to go wrong, it’s essential to build some wiggle room into the schedule. That way, when your pilot announces that you’re circling over NAS instead of landing there because both the radar and radio communications at the airport are down, you’re not sweating too much because you’ve built in a 3-hour+ layover during which to clear immigration and customs, walk over to the domestic terminal, check in with your tiny commuter airline, and get through the understaffed security portal. It helps to be flying with carry-on luggage only, so you don’t have to wait for bags to be decanted, collected and checked in again; plus, that’s a good guide for how little stuff you really need.
A tiny airport like New Bight International Airport doesn’t leave much room for error.
While we had our requisite misadventure, Skip and Harriet, flying from Ft. Lauderdale, had their own. Their flight had been delayed due to heavy storms in southeast Florida, and they cut the transfer to Sky Bahamas much closer than we did. Nothing some Sands beer (brewed in Freeport, and Bahamian-owned) or rum can’t fix. Lucky for us, Sky Bahamas was flying with its full fleet, and close to schedule; unfortunately, even though they fixed their planes for flying, they did not fix them for comfort. No air-conditioning during a 40-minute flight in June was not pleasant, but it was a mere blip.
Once the plane deposited us on the tarmac, we collected our bags and were greeted by a taxi driver sent by FBV, who had us at the front desk in minutes. “Check-in” took about 2 minutes – confirming that we were staying in Point House (no need for keys) and informing us that appetizers would be served at 7. Another minute, and we were at the house most distant from FBV’s clubhouse, losing most of our travel clothes and checking out the beach while breaking into the bottle of pineapple rum purchased at the airport in Nassau. So, after 12 hours of travel, it took about 10 minutes to get into the island groove. If the rum hadn’t done it, the walk down the gorgeous beach to the tiki bar would have.
Even on a cloudy day, Fernandez Bay Village is a lovely sight.
It helps that this was our 5th visit (6th, if you count the time we spent anchored in the bay during our sabbatical) to Fernandez Bay. The place is as familiar as a second home to us, and as welcoming. We know the ins and outs of FBV, its rhythms and its little quirks. Although we’re now seeing the next generation taking over the management of the resort, the transition has been seamless as far as we can see.
Like the other Out Island resorts we’ve stayed at or visited, FBV is anchored by a central clubhouse. FBV’s is a soaring coral stone structure with a thatched roof, next to which is the tiki bar – which we all know is truly the heart of all of the action. All meals are served here, and all the guests congregate here before dinner to concoct their own drinks on the honor system, or bring their own, and await the sunset. As with every other visit we’ve had here, we’ve found the other guests to be great company – whether part of the large family group visiting by private jet and yacht, the honeymooners, or the couple who’d mutinied and abandoned ship (and turned out to be from the same town as Skip and Harriet). Almost all of them were already, or will likely become, part of our tribe of Out Island fanatics.
This is our first summer visit, so we’re not used to the position of the sunset; in the winter, over open water, we usually watch for a green flash.
Because we were traveling with friends this time around, instead of staying in one of the cottages at FBV, we chose the 2-bedroom villa Point House. Every morning when I woke, I had the familiar view of the sea from my window, the coral stone walls, and the lazily spinning fan overhead.
The view we’d wake up to.
But instead of being steps away from the clubhouse, we had the not-so-arduous 5-minute walk down the beach before getting that first blast of caffeine.
Our quiet end of the beach.
And, being in a house, we had a white-paneled living area with comfortable seating and a compact kitchen. Most importantly (to me, anyway) was what the villa and cottages lack: walls in the garden baths (allowing the pleasure of semi-outdoor bathing), televisions and telephones.
Having our own kitchen meant that we could make our own Dark and Stormy cocktails; except no one ever heard of Gosling’s black rum (even though the store was well-stocked with ginger beer), so we had to settle for Ron Ricardo Bahamian dark rum. Close enough!
The most outstanding feature of Fernandez Bay Village, however, is Fernandez Bay itself. A perfect white sand crescent lined with casuarinas, palms and palmettos. When the sun strikes that water, it’s the most mesmerizing, crystalline, blinding, unlikely blue – a color so intense and striking that I’ll call it “Improbablue,” because unless you see it for yourself, you don’t quite believe it’s real. Since this was our first summer visit, it was also our first experience of how warm the water can be – how easy it can be to simply slip in and never leave its caress.
Fernandez Bay, colored in Improbablue. The color is especially stunning when contrasted with dark storm clouds.
Despite all of this to commend FBV, the critters simply thumb their noses and do whatever the heck they want. The curly-tailed geckos have the run of the place. The frog likes his perch on our toilet seat (below the lid) – hence the need to turn on the lights and check before having a seat. The snake was comfortable in the electrical works, causing the power outage that followed the outages that came with the overnight thunderstorms. And the noseeums – emboldened by a few wet and windless days — made a buffet of us at dawn and dusk, despite lavish applications of DEET. Every time I scratch the dozens of bites decorating my skin, I think of vacation.
Other critters on the island were far less vexing. Just south of Fernandez Bay is a network of mangrove creeks which we explore by kayak. The clear waters reveal schools of juvenile fish, sea turtles, and baby sharks. They also reveal that the power of positive thinking cannot defeat low tide – one of our outings in the creek was too close to the witching hour, and we got stuck on the tiny hillocks of squidgy sand while trying to traverse to the outlet of the creek (and its secret beaches), and we were forced to turn back. Our consolation that time was that the outgoing current and wind gently pushed us out of the creek, in contrast to the upstream fight we had to get stuck.
Rick and Harriet paddle ahead of me in the creek, as thunder rumbles.
FBV is just a small sliver of what Cat Island, which is about 50 miles long, has to offer. You’ve got to hit the road to explore. Renting a car is about as major a formality as checking in was – after offering up my credit card and driver’s license, I was given the keys to an elderly Honda CRV, reminded to drive on the left side, and told “no broken glass, no big dents.” Gilbert’s car rentals knows exactly what Out Island fanatics will do to their cars. Given the condition of the roads on Cat Island, and knowing where renters are going to take the vehicles, they know that all they can realistically expect is to get their cars back with no major damage. (I put that to the test right away. I’ve driven on the left before, but never in a right-hand-drive car. I had quite an adventure backing the car out of a sandy track I’d mistakenly driven into. But at least the windshield was clean, as I repeatedly turned on the wipers instead of the turn signal.)
Just like on most every other Out Island, there is one main paved road, with the same name: the Queen’s Highway. On Cat Island, it hugs the western shore, washed out and crumbling in some places, but in reasonable enough condition to get you from the top of the island to the bottom in about 2 hours. It’s going off the main road that is the challenge. The “roads” are a combination of sandy tracks, gouged out limestone, and the occasional rocky stretch. Vegetation encroaches from the sides, so the shriek-y scratch of sea grapes scraping the paint off your car is part of the soundtrack of any road trip. Plenty of vegetation – even 18-inch palmettos – grows between the tracks, so the bottom of your car gets scraped clean. It takes a good bit of bumping, grinding and axle twisting to get to any of the other beaches on the island.
Hard to believe, but spectacular as Fernandez Bay is, we did find ourselves visiting other stretches of shoreline. FBV had as many as – gasp! – 2 dozen guests that we had to share our mile of beach with. To get away from all of those people, we had to wander.
There is the pink sand, lively surf, interesting (and sad) collection of flotsam, and “cliffs” (on an island featuring the Bahamas’ highest point, Mt. Alvernia at a mere 206 feet) of Fine Bay about 4 miles away.
The surf splashes up onto the pink sands of Fine Bay.
Also on the ocean side, the beach we call Conch Cove, with tiny sandy islets offshore breaking the surf. (This one had better be gorgeous, because it takes about 40 minutes of off-road maneuvering, including passing through a dump and a stinky salt pond, to get there.)
More pink sand, and more solitude, at Conch Cove.
In contrast is the placid Exuma Sound side beach of Old Bight, bordered by an ancient cemetery and plantation ruins.
Old Bight’s clear and calm waters.
And the wild and undeveloped shore of Port Royal, where a half dozen people had the audacity to join us on 2 miles of sand.
A dozen years after we first found our way to this spectacular beach at Port Royal, and it seems not to have changed at all.
As part of our road trips, we planned lunch stops. An old favorite is Yardie’s, deservedly known for the best conch salad on the island, as well as down-home Bahamian specialties like steamed fish, accompanied by frosty Sands.
There is nothing more refreshing, and more typically Bahamian, than a cool conch salad and a frosty beer at a roadside stand. You can also fill your gas tank here.
A newer addition to the Cat Island scene is the restaurant at Shanna’s Cove, perched on the bluff that tumbles down to the Port Royal beach. Of all things, Shanna’s is known for good pizza, which hits the spot after eating fish and conch for every meal.
When we tire of conch and our view at Fernandez Bay, there’s always pizza and a caprese salad, with a view of Port Royal, from Shanna’s Cove.
Cat Island’s iconic attraction is the Hermitage, a site I never tire of visiting. Perched atop Mt. Alvernia and offering views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Exuma Sound, it’s one of those places that inspires me to be mindful and count my blessings.
Not least of which is my ability to visit the magical Out Islands of the Bahamas and share them with my friends.